Roy Hodgson’s starting XI against Italy – combinations and permutations

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In the weathered hands of England manager Roy Hodgson rests a seemingly infinite number of combinations and permutations from which to pluck a starting XI for the World Cup opener against Italy on Saturday.

Attack is where the discrepancy lives. Joe Hart will start in goal, Leighton Baines, Gary Cahill, Phil Jagielka and Glen Johnson will be the starting back four, and Steven Gerrard has locked down one of the central midfield spots.

That much we know. But from there on forward, things get sticky.

The general issue is whether Hodgson will go aggressive and deploy a diamond midfield behind two strikers or whether he’ll opt for the balance of a 4-2-3-1, utilizing two holding players behind three attacking midfielders and a lone striker. But formation is only one component of Hodgson’s prescription. A considerably larger concern is one of personnel and with a number of talented young stallions at his disposal, the England manager has some very difficult decisions to make.

So let’s take a look at a few different setups Hodgson has available to roll out against the Azzurri.

THE TASTE OF LIVERPOOL

The most talked about formation for England, the 4-4-2 diamond midfield, happens to be the same shape Liverpool used to claim second place in the past season’s Premier League. Brendan Rodgers perfected this setup with a rotating group of midfielders but always present in the bunch was Gerrard, at the fulcrum, and Raheem Sterling, in any one of the three advanced roles. Proving himself capable of opening defenses up from the left or right side, Sterling’s game rose to a new level late in the season when Rodgers inserted him into the center of the pitch where his quickness and evasive nature proved too much for stiff-legged central defenders.

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Adam Lallana looks poised to exchange his Southampton shirt for a Liverpool kit.

Another key to the diamond midfield is balance, which is achieved through utilizing fit outside midfielders who have no issue playing both sides of the ball. And there’s no better man for that job than Jordan Henderson, who makes 90 minutes of sprinting look like a walk in the park.

A fellow Liverpool player, Henderson has an intimate understanding of Gerrard and Sterling as well as how to correctly use the diamond shape to his advantage. Henderson’s ability to drop deep, at times even alongside Gerrard, allows Hodgson to select a fourth member of the midfield with slightly more aggressive tendencies.

And who better for that role than Adam Lallana, the $34-42M transfer target of Liverpool, who looks primed to join the Reds by the end of July? The 26-year-old excelled on the left side for Southampton this past year, is not opposed to running himself ragged for 70 odd minutes and provides devastating trickery to compliment that of Sterling.

Opting for a four man midfield with Liverpool connections may feel biased but it’s a proven commodity that sparks goals. Factor in the Daniel Sturridge connection up top and this feels like a balanced yet aggressive lineup for Hodgson to utilize in the event he truly desires to take the game to Italy.

THE (ROONEY-LESS?) YOUTH BLITZ

If Hodgson really wants to throw a curveball at Italy he’ll unleash the youth, likely in a 4-2-3-1, which provides a bit more protection than the diamond. The youth setup would partner 22-year-old Jack Wilshere alongside Gerrard in what would be a clever pivot. Wilshere’s love for the tackle compliments that of Gerrard while the Arsenal man’s knack for creating off-the-dribble would provide a key link between the attacking midfielders and the striker.

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Many pundits feel Wayne Rooney’s starting spot could be in jeopardy. Will Hodgson pull the plug?

In front of Gerrard and Wilshere would be 19-year-old Sterling on the left wing, 20-year-old Ross Barkley in the central attacking role and, ideally, 20-year-old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing. The obvious issue currently facing this system is that Oxlade-Chamberlain is nursing a knee issue that may keep him out against Italy. While his speed and two directional play would devastate and provide balance to this shape he’d be well deputized by Henderson or Danny Welbeck, who would then swap sides with Sterling.

One downside of a youth blitz in a 4-2-3-1 is that Wayne Rooney may be the odd man out. It’s a predicament many pundits believe Hodgson may be inclined to move forward with given the United man’s sub-par Premier League season and poor World Cup history. That said, charging forward without Rooney in the starting lineup feels like a titanic miss and one that Hodgson would be wise to avoid risking. Instead, Hodgson could push forward with a youth blitz and Rooney, who could partner with Sturridge in front of a diamond midfield made up of Gerrard, Sterling, Barkley and Ox/Henderson/Welbeck/Wilshere.

Regardless of using a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 diamond, the key to the youth blitz would be giving England fans that which they fiend for the most: Sterling alongside Barkley in what would be a freakishly athletic, skillful and audacious pair that few opposing defenses, including the Italians, would be equipped to handle.

THE RUNNING MAN

As we know by now, heat and humidity will play a large role in this World Cup meaning many a match will come down to a battle of the fittest. And no venue will provide a greater challenge of the conditions than the sweltering jungle of Manaus, where England faces Italy. To hedge against those conditions, don’t be surprised if Hodgson opts for an attacking group of running men, which means James Milner becomes a real possibility to start.

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James Milner’s third lung may be enough to get him into Roy Hodgson’s starting XI.

The City man is as fit as the come. Inserting him on the right side along with Gerrard in the fulcrum, the inexhaustible Henderson on the left, and Sterling at the point of a diamond midfield could prove a very wise play.

If Hodgson opts for a 4-2-3-1, Rooney could drop into the attacking midfield role, Sterling to the bench and Wilshere alongside Gerrard.

It’s a lineup that would allow England to put Italy under pressure and bring veteran leadership into the side. While not the most exciting play, Milner’s work rate could break down Italy’s left side for a sub like Sterling or Oxlade-Chamberlain to then capitalize.

THE OLD GUARD

The most conservative and downright uninspiring attack Hodgson could play would be to pair Gerrard with Milner and Frank Lampard.

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Frank Lampard can play a role for England in the World Cup, hopefully just not as a starter.

Whether in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 and regardless of who is played on the left side, such a lineup would reek of a lack of ambition and spell doom for England.

Fortunately, while such a makeup could have been foreseeable under Fabio Capello’s tenure as manager, it seems unlikely that Hodgson would revert to such a level of conservative tactics. There is a freshness about this England squad that is just begging to be unleashed on the world.

What better stage to make it happen than to kickoff Brazil 2014?

 

 

 

Jose Mourinho gives update on Man United’s transfer plans

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Jose Mourinho has already made two signings and spent over $135 million this summer.

But he wants more. He always wants more.

[ MORE: Daley Blind chats to JPW ]

With United back in the UEFA Champions League this season, the Portuguese coach said he wanted to add four new players to his squad to get them ready to challenge for the Premier League title and European silverware.

Speaking ahead of the Manchester Derby in Houston on Thursday against Manchester City in a preseason friendly, Mourinho revealed just how tough its been to get deals over the line this summer.

“Everybody knows because I said it, I would like four players and asked for four players,” Mourinho said. “I’m ready to go from four to three because the market is difficult, because some clubs they think the market is different from others.

“We are not a club that is not ready to buy and buy and buy non-stop. We are not a club that is ready to pay what clubs wants us to pay, so I am ready to go from four to three. With these three, I just give a better balance to the team, to the squad and better conditions to compete.”

United were just valued as the most valuable soccer team on the planet by Forbes, jumping ahead of Barcelona and Real Madrid and only the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees are more valuable than the Red Devils in the sporting world.

Mourinho can’t play the pauper card here, even if he tried to when stating his “surprise” that Kyle Walker cost crosstown rivals Man City close to $65 million.

The truth is, he’s probably put all his eggs in one basket with the signing of Romelu Lukaku for $96.5 million and that’s okay. United needed a center forward to be the focal point of the team after Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s serious knee injury, so they got what they needed and Victor Lindelof will also be a starter in central defense.

Those two players both improve United’s team drastically.

Now, it’s quite clear that Ivan Perisic, an out-and-out winger, and Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic were the final two players Mourinho wanted to get on board. The deal for Perisic appears to be dead in the water with Inter Milan not budging on their $56 million asking price, while holding midfielder Matic will surely arrive at Old Trafford after Tiemoue Bakayoko signed for Chelsea.

Even then, does Mourinho really need another winger with Jesse Lingard, Anthony Martial, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata around? Perisic should be no more than a luxury buy if they can get him for the right price, while adding Matic to the engine room will be vital to providing balance to their slightly top-heavy squad.

After putting down a world-record fee last summer for Paul Pogba and spending big on Lukaku this summer, Mourinho won’t have many people feeling sorry for him.

Three things from the USMNT’s 2-0 win over El Salvador

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The United States of America is not winning the Gold Cup.

At least that’s not how things look despite Bruce Arena’s much-needed call-ups of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Darlington Nagbe, and Clint Dempsey.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore bit | Player ratings ]

Don’t let the clean sheet fool you: The defense was a mess again, the finishing was off, and any other remaining team in the tournament would’ve dismissed the U.S. at the quarterfinals given the same chances.

Agree or disagree, read on…

Back line blues

Tim Howard bailed out Eric Lichaj for a miserable early giveaway, but the play was far from an aberration for the Yanks’ defense.

Lichaj, solid in his first match of the tournament, struggled with giveaways in this one. Center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Hedges were caught out of position and sometimes out of the camera, with the former’s missed clearance of a cross nearly allowing El Salvador back into the game in the 63rd minute.

With this roster and Costa Rica on the other side Saturday, Hedges probably needs to slide back onto the bench and Gonzalez needs to be paired with his World Cup mate Matt Besler. We’d still like to see more from Matt Miazga, but unsure a semifinal against the team that got your last coach fired is the spot for a relative rookie.

Now what does Arena do with the fullbacks? Neither Lichaj nor Morrow shone in defense, but Graham Zusi has been very poor and Jorge Villafana is yet to put forth a complete performance in this tournament. Looking back to the Martinique charade, defense is slated to send the Yanks away from the Gold Cup without a title and probably without a Final. Find a fix, Bruce.

The roster changes were needed

While it wasn’t Clint Dempsey’s best night, he provided a key assist and made sure that each of the five roster changes — third string goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez is six — showed why Arena made the changes after the group stage (though who he sent home, *cough* Kelyn Rowe *cough*, remains up for debate).

Michael Bradley is simply the best option in the center of the park right now, and showed that the captain is still the man even if Dax McCarty is a fine backup. Darlington Nagbe was clean on the ball as usual, Tim Howard made an early calming stop of a horrible Lichaj giveaway, and Jozy Altidore showed that he remains the player to game plan for if you’re a CONCACAF team. While only Howard and Bradley will really love their games, all five will be necessary to a Gold Cup Final run.

Adjustments haven’t been great

Maybe Arena doesn’t have the options he needs to show “master tactician” status, and his work is far from the biggest team problem, but the second half was a problem.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

One substitution in particular was questionable: Arena took off Paul Arriola and replaced him with forward Jordan Morris. Now perhaps this was somehow due to Arriola’s sneaky groin kick earlier in the match, and that’s about the only way I can handle the sub (Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed watching Arriola, so if you think he’s been poor then call this post “Two things” and move on).

The move disrupted Nagbe’s great night and the Yanks never really rebounded to threaten a third goal. In fact, they probably should’ve seen their lead knocked down to one at least once. The Kellyn Acosta for Gyasi Zardes sub was welcome, for sure, so it’s not like Arena was a disaster. And the side hasn’t looked aimless as it did under Jurgen Klinsmann, so this isn’t a witch hunt. But the Americans need better.

USMNT Player Ratings from a disjointed 2-0 win over El Salvador

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The United States men’s national team is onto the Gold Cup semifinals again, but defensively put in a performance that would’ve gotten them eliminated against pretty much any other team remaining in the tournament.

[ MORE: USMNT 2-0 El Salvador | Altidore bit ]

Did anyone shine? Yeah, the “new” boys were good. But confidence isn’t high heading into Texas for a semifinal date with Costa Rica on Saturday.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — Didn’t have to do much, but made a key save early to help avoid a disastrous start.

Justin Morrow — 6 — Good going forward and with the ball, but lost his marks a few times. Still, one of two defenders who won’t totally hate their defending.

Omar Gonzalez — 5 — Scored again, which is really good. Also drifted out of position on several occasions, struggled with his marks, and butchered a headed clearance that should’ve seen El Salvador pull within one.

Matt Hedges — 5 — Not a starring role, but improved from a poor performance in his last outing. Relative to his defensive peers, he was fine.

Eric Lichaj — 5 — Like Gonzalez, he scored. And this one was a very nice goal, but the Nottingham Forest star committed a horrible giveaway early and made a big mistake in the second half as well. Poor.

Michael Bradley — 8 — Much maligned in U.S. circles, had a standout night in the middle of the park that showed why he’s ahead of decent Dax McCarty in the pecking order. Good service on all but one set piece, and an assist to boot.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 87′) — 6 — More than decent work, and trademark clever footwork. Didn’t have that one singular moment of danger to earn a higher mark. Shouldn’t have been taken off unless Bruce Arena plans to use him heavily again on Saturday.

Paul Arriola (Off 66′) — 6 — Industrious evening getting himself into position to make key passes, but accuracy was missing. Also kicked an El Salvadoran player between the legs, which is not good.

Gyasi Zardes (Off 71′) — 6 — If you wanted to give him high marks for some electrifying moves you’d be justified, but still something missing from his final passing.

Clint Dempsey — 7 — Far from perfect, and didn’t match Landon Donovan on the all-time goals mark, but his moment of brilliance to set up Lichaj’s goal was vintage ‘Deuce’.

Jozy Altidore — 6 — A physical menace who deserves credit for not reacting violently to being bitten, he still didn’t create that moment

[ MORE: Three things from the 2-0 win ]

Substitutes

Jordan Morris (On 66′) — 5 — Made a good run upon subbing into the game, then drifted away.

Kellyn Acosta (On 71′) — 6 — Active, now let’s see him with Bradley?

Chris Pontius (On 87′) — N/A

USMNT 2-0 El Salvador: Dodgy D haunts win (video)

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  • Defenders score first half goals
  • Defenders also struggle to mark
  • USMNT faces Costa Rica in semis
  • VIDEO: Altidore bit by Romero

Omar Gonzalez and Eric Lichaj scored first half goals to give the United States men’s national team a 2-0 win over El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarterfinal on Wednesday in Philadelphia.

On another night with better finishers, however, El Salvador might’ve just shocked CONCACAF.

The match was sloppy at the back for both sides, and featured the sideshow of an El Salvadoran player biting American striker Jozy Altidore.

The Yanks will face Costa Rica in the semifinal on Saturday in Texas. Los Ticos edged Panama on an own goal earlier Wednesday.

[ MORE: Player ratings | Altidore bit ]

Altidore flicked Arriola toward the 18 for a chance that was deflected out for a corner.

A break in the other direction saw Eric Lichaj make a massive mistake that forced Tim Howard to stop Rodolfo Zelaya with a desperate sliding paw.

Soon after, Dempsey was denied his chance at equaling the USMNT record for goals when Derby Carrillo lunged to block a doorstep chance.

Matt Hedges was spun and conceded a free kick just outside the 18, and El Salvador came close to going ahead on the ensuing opportunity.

Altidore was saved by Carrillo, and Dempsey played Gyasi Zardes through for a goal that was wrongly called offside in the 17th minute.

The Yanks grew frustrated by the packed-in, ready-to-foul Cuscatlecos, and yellow cards were produced for several players including American veterans Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe.

When it seemed El Salvador would get to the break level, Gonzalez flicked a splendid Michael Bradley free kick — from one of the captain’s favorite angles — for his second big goal of the tournament and a 1-0 lead.

Altidore had another chance stopped well by Carrillo in stoppage time, but the goalkeeper couldn’t get it to the garage at 1-0. A remarkable turn from Dempsey slid Lichaj into the box, and the Nottingham Forest was well away from his flank when he buried his chance.

El Salvador worked into a pair of open shots in the early second half, with the first blazed over the bar and the second low and wide of the near post.

One of those was given away by Lichaj, who was in trouble along with Justin Morrow as El Salvador’s counters became increasingly dangerous.

El Salvador’s Henry Romero bit Altidore and then twisted his chest on a corner kick around the hour mark, unseen by the referee but picked up by replay.

Center backs Gonzalez and Matt Hedges were caught out of position and sometimes out of the camera, with the former’s missed clearance of a cross nearly allowing El Salvador back into the game in the 63rd minute. Those chances didn’t stop as the match wore on, but the Yanks escaped with a clean sheet.